Against the New Normal: The Battle for Britain’s Cultural Identity

15 February 2022

by Dr. John Marenbon

In general histories, 2020 and 2021 will without doubt be remembered as the years of Covid. But in those histories that aim to discern shifts in thought and attitudes, these two years will stand out for a different reason, as the time when a set of views about discrimination, prejudice, culture and guilt moved from being the preserve of some in the media, politics and the universities to becoming, at least nominally, the accepted way of thought in public life in Britain and the West more generally. It was the moment when white, heterosexual men began to be obliged to feel guilty for being themselves, and when it became no longer thinkable for the BBC to present its series of classical composers of the week, or its Promenade Concerts, without including among them a liberal scattering of women and people of colour. It is these views, as much as the adjustments to daily life in response to the pandemic, that should be called the ‘New Normal’ – a New Normal which, unlike social distancing, threatens to endure for decades.

This New Normal has two main, intertwined strands. 

The first strand is a view about society, and how different groups within it should be related. A certain section of the population – the usual cases are: women, those belonging to an ethnic minority, or of a particular sexual orientation – is considered to have suffered discrimination and to be continuing to suffer it; and it is claimed that, in order to end the discrimination and right the wrongs it has caused, radical and rapid change is needed in how society is ordered, and how people think. The emphasis recently has been especially on race, but with other sorts of discrimination also targeted.

The second strand is a view about history and culture. The history of Britain (and Europe and the United States) is envisaged as a shameful one, characterised by discrimination, slavery and exploitation, and its public manifestations, such as statues and memorials, need to be vetted and purged. Western Culture is seen as having excluded these disadvantaged groups, and many of its exponents as complicit in their exploitation. For this reason, it is claimed, Western Culture, as traditionally understood, should no longer shape school and university curricula, nor wider cultural and intellectual life. 

Both strands are vividly illustrated by a series of events in the early summer. In a horrifyingly brutal arrest, a white policeman in Minneapolis suffocated George Floyd, a black man. Demonstrators world-wide pointed the accusing finger not just at the Minneapolis police, or police forces everywhere, but at all white people and the ‘institutional racism’ allegedly embedded in the structure of Western societies. An extremist group made its name, ‘Black Lives Matter’, into the slogan of this worldwide movement. It is not, though, these responses that were remarkable, but the reaction of politicians, business and institutional leaders and many in public life. They accepted almost without question the accusations made against Western society and its culture, which, they agreed, are thoroughly penetrated by institutional racism. From the Chief Executive of Guinness to the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, leading members of the establishment hastened to accuse Western society at large of racism, some going so far as to announce in a peremptory tone to the members of their organisations that ‘black lives matter’, berating them for not thinking and acting in a sufficiently anti-racist manner and even professing allegiance to the aims of the Black Lives Matter group, unaware perhaps that these included defunding the police, abolishing prisons and dismantling capitalism.

The cultural strand was thrown into prominence in June 2020 when Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol removed from its plinth a 19th-century statue of the local philanthropist, Edward Colston, who made his fortune in the slave trade at the end of the 17th century. They then defaced it, rolled it through town and threw it into the sea. Although some politicians and commentators condemned the criminal violence of this action (others condoned it), there was hardly a voice among them in favour of retaining the statue, despite its status as a memorial to the historical culture (17th and 19th century) of Bristol. Indeed, in the wake of the Colston episode, statues countrywide became objects of suspicion, as the authorities quietly removed to the obscurity of museum storerooms those whose subjects did not meet today’s norms of behaviour. Slave-trading has come to be regarded as a communicable disease, infectious not just for hours and days but for centuries, if even the slightest traces of it remain on artefacts from the past. Thus the silver on Cambridge college High Tables has been summoned before commissions of enquiry, and items donated by students with families involved in the slave trade judged unfit for use. Even Scotland’s second greatest philosopher, David Hume, has not escaped: Edinburgh University’s ‘David Hume Tower’ has now been more prosaically renamed ‘40 George Square’ following the philosopher’s defenestration, on the grounds that he used racist language, by the appropriate cadres (the university’s Equality and Diversity Committee and its Race Equality and Anti-Racist Sub-Committee).

Just as the social strand threw into prominence an organisation, Black Lives Matter, which antedated the events following George Floyd’s murder, so the cultural strand has given wide currency to a slogan, already popular among radical groups: ‘Decolonise the curriculum!’ Previously uttered as a complaint by student activists, this injunction has now set the wheels of university (and school) authorities in motion, and although they may be unsure about what it means, few in the arts and humanities question that it is a valuable aim, to be pursued without delay or reflection.

But is the New Normal really new? The discussion about discrimination, both sexual and racial, was already widespread in the 1970s, and since then thousands of pages have been written by legal theorists especially, but also by philosophers, on affirmative action. The beginnings of its cultural strand can also be seen half a century ago in the opposition to the Western Civilisation courses, which had been widespread in U.S. universities, and more widely in calls for curriculum reform over the last two decades.

As a collection of arguments, the content of the New Normal is indeed far from novel. What is new is that the views are no longer presented as arguments, to be accepted because they are rationally convincing or countered with other arguments and new evidence. They have become an orthodoxy, and are on their way to becoming an unchallengeable one.

Public dissent from this New Normal is rare. A few brave politicians have refused to take a knee. Others, and no doubt a majority of the public, including many of those who have publicly professed faith in the new gospel, are waiting quietly for it all to pass. The danger is that they are waiting in vain. A new dogma, which is accepted for political reasons and to avoid contention, though mouthed at first without conviction, rapidly acquires the familiarity of habit and in the end is accepted as unquestionable truth.

The New Normal should not be thoughtlessly accepted. There are very strong reasons for rejecting each of its two strands, which need to be considered separately. In practice, it is true, the two strands have become almost inextricably intertwined: outrage prompted by the murder of an African American in Minneapolis expresses itself unquestioningly in violence towards a 19th-century statue in Bristol of a 17th-century philanthropist and slave-trader, just as it makes teachers at school and university rush to reassess and, as they put it, ‘decolonise’ their curricula. But the arguments behind the two strands, and so the arguments needed to counter them, are very different. 

Although the first strand is complex, because it involves the notions of race, sex and gender, each of which is contested, there is a simple line of argument that can be made by those who challenge this aspect of the New Normal. In any ordinary sense of ‘discrimination’, while there is in Britain today some discrimination on grounds of gender, race and sexual orientation, it is not (except perhaps some forms of reverse discrimination against those who are perceived to be privileged) widespread in a way that could make it the reason for radical changes in the social order, and it is well covered by existing legislation. Most of what is decried as discrimination or the results of it is, rather, disadvantage. There are serious debates to be had about how much society owes to the disadvantaged and whether it needs to be changed so as to benefit them, but these are debates not about discrimination but equality and opportunity. One of the two most sinister effects of the New Normal is that it obscures questions about disadvantage and inequality in a fog of allegations of racism and sexism. The other one is that the ostensible opponents of discrimination are all too willing to advocate discrimination against groups they perceive as privileged and to find devious means of justifying it.

My new booklet for Politeia is not about this first strand, however, but the second, cultural one. Although this second strand does not concern the hard facts of life, such as opportunities in education and employment, or levels of pay and incarceration, it is no less important than the first. Our relationship to our history and our culture shape how we lead our lives, and is both one of our culture’s many achievements and one of its main supports.

Dr. John Marenbon is a Fellow of the British Academy, Senior Research Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Honorary Professor of Medieval Philosophy. This is an edited version of the introduction to his new pamphlet for Politeia, The Battle for Britain’s Cultural Identity: Against the New Normal.